The Computer Blog

Friday, December 31, 2004

John Dvorac and the Temple of Doom

In his latest musings from PC Magazine, John Dvorac prophesizes that the Mac is a doomed platform. The argument, and one that keeps popping up eternally from various computer pundits, is based on market share. Dvorac calls the Mac market share “shrinking” despite the popularity of the iPod which he seems to feel is distracting Apple from its ills, or at least, is hiding them. Indeed, this year has seen several Mac software developers and hardware vendors drop support for the platform; and there is at least some truth in his observation from that aspect. Yet, the “shrinking market share” a.k.a. “sky is falling” approach does not match my own observations nor the expectations of some financial analysts who feel Apple is “on a roll”. Time will tell who is correct.

It is a typical American flaw to focus on quantity instead of quality. (I could get into a very verbose discussion of the associated neuroses manifesting in our everyday lives of that, but I won’t do it here.) Dvorac makes the argument—and a good one—that Macs need to be cheaper. Apple may be answering that call this year with a “headless” Mac in the $500-$600 range rumored to be released at Macworld Expo in a few weeks. Even if it doesn’t, if Apple needs to charge slightly higher costs than their competitors to keep charging forward in innovation and design, I think they’re warranted in doing so. Don’t get me wrong. I often do hesitate to buy Apple because of the premiums they charge; but I also have felt that the premium was generally worth it, which is why I’m still a Mac customer despite Apple’s continuing guffaws with quality control.

It’s been interesting to watch the effects of exposing people in my own family to Macs. So far, everybody who has become accustomed to them has liked them. In some cases, family members familiar with what they can do on a Windows machine have been impressed and surprised with what they could do with a Mac. Where that will lead, who knows? But you can bet the next time they need to buy a computer, they will at least look at Macs a lot more seriously.

The Mac may look like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, but it is really the Emperor Windows who’s in trouble.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Why Apple Is Such a Class Act

If you’ve been to Apple’s website since the devastating tsunamis hit parts of Asia, then you’ve seen that the banner headline swamping the website’s lead page is this: “Our hearts reach out to those hurt by the Indian Ocean tsunamis”. The rest of the page contains links to the various relief agencies working to relieve suffering in the region. Apple’s own products are totally absent.

After seeing that, I pad a little visit to the websites belonging to Dell, Gateway, E-Machines, and Microsoft. Their pages are littered only with the mention of their own products. It’s business as usual. There is no mention of what is being touted as one of the world’s most devastating natural disasters.

Once again, Apple has demonstrated why it is such a class act. I’m proud to be an Apple customer and supporter.

Monday, December 27, 2004

A Mac-Apple Christmas

This year was a “Mac-Apple” Christmas not to be seen on this scale again.

While delivered several weeks before Christmas, I bought my wife a refurbished 17 inch G5 iMac. We’ve had no problems with the machine, and its stable performance allowed us to give my wife’s older 800 Mhz G4 flat panel iMac to my sister. Both iMacs continue to perform well, and the delivery of a Mac to my sister’s household permitted her to give her Windows powered PC to one of her boys. The Smiths are now exploring a new “Mac” world of computing, and so far my sister seems to like it. Her boys seemed to be skeptical and resist it at first, but they are slowly succumbing to the iMac’s coolness and its ease of use.

I had given my wife a new iPod for her birthday in late October, and she decided to repay me the favor at Christmas. She gave me a new 20GB iPod to replace my old 5GB model. Unfortunately, the new replacement did not like its new home.

When I tried to synchronize the new iPod with iTunes, I found it would only load about 120 or so of the 644 songs loaded on my hard drive. iTunes detected the new iPod, correctly initialized its routines, and would begin loading the songs onto the machine only to bog down and stop somewhere around the “120” number. And do it time after time, no matter how I came at it. I spent HOURS reloading iPod and iTunes’ software and troubleshooting the iPod trying to solve the problem. Finally, as I began feeling what I’ve felt too often while solving some Windows installation error, I used my old iPod to update its songs. When it worked like a champ, I knew I had a hardware problem with the new iPod. OK, so maybe I was a bit slow on the uptake (or is that stubborn?), but it was a good thing that hadn’t been my first experience with Apple or I might have fled right back to the Windows platform from which I came. Because I knew this was atypical, I quit troubleshooting and chose to swap the unit for a new one the next day at the Apple Store. Once again, Apple’s customer service (vice its quality control) paid off!

My second new iPod worked like it was supposed to. iTunes recognized it as soon as it hooked up, ran its initialization routines, and promptly and quickly loaded my whole song library onto the iPod. I have a new click-wheel iPod and really like it, and I‘ve shipped my old 5GB iPod to my stepson and his wife for them to enjoy.

Meanwhile, my sister in law has decided to get high-speed Internet access. She has an even older 400MHz G3 CRT iMac at her home along with her grandson’s 800MHz G3 iBook (all donated from us). They haven’t been using the iMac that much; but when I heard this, I realized there was an opportunity to press it into service. I had a copy of OS 10.1 lying around and knew the old iMac could run it. The grandson’s iBook is equipped with an Airport card. If they hooked up their new Internet access via a wireless router, they could not only protect themselves with the router’s firewall but could use both machines to access the Internet at any time and simultaneously. I bought a Belkin 802.11G wireless router and sent it and OS 10.1 with my wife to Missouri.

More and more, we’re introducing my family on both sides of the wedding line to Macs.

It’s nice to have a purpose in life, isn’t it?

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Another rebuttal to Rich Brooks

As you might expect, Rich Brooks took some heat over the editorial he wrote in the Herald Tribune and that marginalized the Mac in the classroom. You can read his response here. That, of course, generated a rebuttal which I e-mailed to him this afternoon. I also submitted an edited version of this to the Letters to the Editor section of the paper. Here was my response:

"Dear Rich,

Sorry to hear you got attacked by people you termed the “Mac cultists”. I am one of those people who wrote you. However, I hope my e-mail to you was one of those you called “polite and well thought out”. It was meant to be.

However, your response to those e-mails seems to demonstrate your close-mindedness about the Mac platform. It really is quite unfair to blame the platform for the excesses of a few. People who will attack others when they disparage the computer they are using exist on all sides of the fence and underneath every platform. Believe me, I know. About two years ago when I posted some analysis demonstrating that Apple’s G5 CPU’s had largely closed the performance gap between Athlon XP processors, I got a similar tirade from people using the PC. My name was not only dragged through the mud but posted on websites around the world. That comes with the territory, doesn’t it?

Secondly, some of your second response made me wonder if you read my response to you at all. I would point out to you again I have a Windows XP PC running MacDrive that can read Mac disks. One step. (Attach drive.) I didn’t mention that my Mac can read floppies using an external USB floppy drive. One step. (Insert floppy.) So, your argument about floppy drives, which some PC manufacturers do not include on their systems any more, is irrelevant.

Actually, I still feel you’re the one missing the point. If every school system in the country adopted your approach of buying only the platform that is in the widest use, then the school systems will forever be behind whatever technology is being brought forward. The kids in school today are more likely to be using Linux or Mac OS X or some operating system that hasn’t been invented yet as they are Windows. Note that both Linux and Mac OS X are Unix based operating systems, and many computer pundits have said that Mac OS X is already what Linux aspires to be. I believe the future of computing lies in a Unix not a Windows base, and that’s one thing you’ve shown no awareness of at all.

Thanks for your time."

I really don't expect to hear from him. My feeling at this point is nothing anyone is going to say is going to get him to consider he might be wrong or that he really doesn't know much about what is happening in computing today. I'd like to be wrong. Time will tell whether I am or not.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

A Response to Rich Brooks' "The Mac Attack"

Columnist Rich Brooks wrote an editorial in the HeraldTribune, a Southwest Florida newspaper, assailing the use of the Mac in the classroom. I e-mailed a response to him this afternoon. Here's what it said:

"Dear Rich,

As someone who has experienced the joys and dismays of working on both platforms, I wanted to respond to your article about schools and PC’s and the Mac platform in general.

I started out life on the PC back in 1986 or so when the PC I could afford used an IBM 8088 CPU, DOS was the operating system, and Wordstar was the word processor of choice. I wanted a computer to help me write and perform desktop publishing. Several friends advised me to get a Mac; but like you argued, I decided to go with the platform that would be compatible with the systems being used at my job. So, I went with DOS and Windows. Almost twenty years later, I now know the decision was a huge mistake. If I had back all the time I spent learning the intricacies of DOS and Windows and troubleshooting them, I could write fifteen novels. I have become very good at troubleshooting and even building PC’s, but that was not what I had intended to do. It became a matter of survival.

In your article, you completely ignored the problems with viruses, crashes, etc that seem to plague Windows platforms much more than the Macs. While Windows XP is a more stable platform than any of its predecessors, I still find myself often trying to troubleshoot why something isn’t working before I can start the real work I came to do on it. Schools typically have very limited IT budgets and staff; and, in many schools, teachers fill in the gaps. While the initial buy into the Mac platform is often higher (and some systems are competitive with similarly priced PC’s), the overall lifetime costs may be lower. Certainly, I spend a lot less time troubleshooting systems because I have mostly switched to the Mac platform, and that is an intangible cost often not considered. The fact that Macs are not currently plagued with virus problems is a huge plus, especially in an academic environment. I didn’t see you address that at all

I had been struggling for several years with editing and producing videos on the Windows platform when I married a Mac user. I wasn’t impressed with her little iMac running OS 9. Windows 98 seemed to have more functionality than it did. Then Apple released OS X and the flat panel iMac. My wife wanted both; so, I bought her them. She got my attention when, without cracking a book, she burned a DVD slideshow complete with music twenty minutes after starting the task. I was impressed!

I can tell you for a fact the Mac platform is better for video production. The new G5’s have kicked up Mac performance where it is competitive with the PC’s, and Mac software, Final Cut Pro or Express, iMovie, and iDVD, provide not only great environments but great integration as well. With them, I get consistent, creative results, something I was seldom able to do on the Windows platform.

Further, it is a simple thing to equip an OS X Mac with a newer G4 processor and create a video conference using an iSight, iChat, and a high speed Internet connection. It takes no more moxy than being able to hook up the iSight camera to a Mac’s Firewire port, calling up iChat, and knowing the other person’s screen name. We did that this Thanksgiving and connected up with my wife’s family. (They’re in rural Missouri, and we’re in Texas.) Her 80 year old parents were able to configure the device and get it running. One of my nephews, who is a Windows advocate, commented that it worked better than anything he had seen on the Windows’ platform. One could use such a simple set-up (at a cost of only $150 per camera) to support video conferences between classrooms within the same school, hook up to a class at a different school, or connect a class to a government or industry expert. (Lest you think that Macs only inhabit academia, I’ll share with you that there are Macs running around at NASA, among other government agencies, including the Office of Homeland Security, which adopted them because of their security advantages.)

Your statement that Macs use different programs and that file transfer is difficult between platform is an anachronism based on the past. I’m writing this to you using Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac and a PowerBook running OS 10.3. I can save this document and transport it to my PC using either my home network or some other means and open it in Office 2000 on my home or office Windows machines without a hitch. Secondly, I do some graphics work using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, desktop publish using In Design, and manage a website using Adobe Go Live. I have these programs on both my Windows machine and a Mac and swap files all the time invisibly. I build presentations in PowerPoint that no one at my job can tell came from a Mac, and I routinely type notes in Word I transfer to my work PC. If you don’t want to invest in Microsoft Office for the Mac (and students and teachers can get the new version which permits three installs for only $150), there is Open Office which can be downloaded for free and runs on both the Mac and the PC. Many Macs come with Apple Works, Apple’s equivalent of Microsoft Works, and the latest versions with come with Microsoft Word filters. It’s true that not every program available on the Windows platform is available for the Mac; but my point is that most major programs do have Mac equivalents, and file swapping is just not that big a problem anymore.

The latest versions of the Mac operating system also network fairly effortlessly with Windows networks. I move files routinely between my Macs and my PC using a wired and wireless Ethernet network and find that the Macs are easier to set up and use than my PC. Strangely but not particularly surprising to me, I can often get into my work network using Virtual Private Networking (VPN) on the Mac when my Windows XP machine will not hook up. There are some places on my work network my Mac does not easily go and I do use my Windows machine to access those. But I can check e-mail and calendar events using Outlook on either machine and access most websites without a problem.

I do keep one Windows PC around to run a few programs (most of them are flight simulators not available on the Mac) and to do a few things on my office network I haven’t figured out how to do with the Mac. Even then, my PC is not Mac adverse. I’m using a 20 inch Apple Cinema Display for its monitor; and it is the cleanest, brightest display I own. I run an application called “Macdrive” that lets me mount Mac formatted disks as if they belonged to Windows (That includes a Mac formatted iPod.). If I owned no PC’s, I could run Windows XP on my Macs using Virtual PC. This is something I do on my PowerBook to run a flight planning application I use when I pilot an airplane. It won’t do for games, but many games are being made available for the Mac platform.

As for the Mac’s shrinking market share, there are plenty of current reports of financial analysts predicting that the Mac may move into double digits in the near future. Your argument that one needs to buy Windows because it’s the big bugger is the equivalent of telling folks to do what is popular instead of what’s best for them. A move to the Mac may not be for everyone, but it certainly has been a good thing for me.

I would encourage any school system to move to them if they’re not there already. They will enhance creativity and “out of the box” thinking more than any PC will; and ultimately, that may be the most important thing about them.

If you haven’t dropped by an Apple Store, you might want to give it a try, just out of journalistic curiosity if for no other reason. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you’ll find. "